“When W. H. Auden said, ‘My face looks like a wedding cake left out in the rain,’ we see something new and true about both Auden’s face and wedding cakes. That sort of good metaphoric language makes our experiences more spacious, expanding our sensibility. In this way, a metaphor is a door that appears and opens in the middle of life, giving us new vistas on the world.”
So writes Lawrence Scott and that is exactly what he does as he contemplates the shimmering veil between our real and online selves and how we navigate our lives across these ever-shifting borders. Scott pulls from everywhere – his own behaviour, from art, literature, forgotten articles online, old TV shows now with permanent home on youtube for anyone curious or nostalgic enough to go looking and so on. This is not a guide on how to live in the online dimension, but rather an exploration of what it means to our sense of selves, our experiences, relationships and navigation through the world.
As someone who cannot form a healthy, permanent relationship with social media, I found his essays to be a beautiful space for reflection on the inherent contradictions that everyone struggles with to varying degrees. How much to share, how much to preserve, how much to consume, how much to be aware of the impact of that consumption upon the self. His writing is both familiar and elevating for those who want to reflect on where we are in this digital landscape.
He embarks on a journey that traipses through identify, online dating, presence of mind and body, and more. As “increasingly, the moments of our lives audition for digitisation”, he reassesses what now feels mundane and imbues it with a sense of recognition and relief.
Amongst his contemplations are the nature of our identity on the internet. In comparison to the early expectation of the internet, which was that we could go anywhere and be anyone, we are now encouraged to form a stable entity online as well. To create a profile, both literally and in the sense of analytics that is a “predictable, measurable consumer-citizen” especially since there is now a distrust of those whom we cannot track – are they fake, are they bots, are they dangerous?
He makes us feel the pulse of truth in what is now natural behaviour for most. In the recent past, our social life meant being constrained to the people we were surrounded by and stuck with. Now, we can meet someone new at a bar and for them, “messages from hotter prospects two streets away could suddenly fly in like drones”. He writes, “the pressures of everywhereness, which call for a collapse of here and there, can produce a sense of absenteeism, and the suspicion that, despite being in many places at once, we’re not fully inhabiting any of them.”
Most enjoyable is his commentary on the etiquette of interacting across real and online spaces and the blurring of lines between private actions and public display as we must now be cognisant of our steps across different mediums. Earlier, the lack of response to a text message might mean that the other party tries a few ways to reach out and then gives up, not knowing where the silent un-sender has gone. Now, if we are avoiding someone, we must also make sure we are not seen elsewhere. “If [he has] long owed someone a message and stubbornly refuse to alleviate himself] of this guilt by replying, then [he feels] compelled to tiptoe around the rest of the network. Even an unthinking “like” can become a creaking floorboard” If we called in sick to work, we better not put up a story of ourselves down at the bar!
He is bravely open about his online behaviour that we may relate to but never admit. His “stalks” the online footprint of individuals he barely knew, long after they have exited his life. They upload their lives to the digital realm for consumption by friends and family, largely forgetting or ignoring that they have also given access to strangers and acquaintances who can snoop around whenever they so wish. Time is collapsed so that a tweet about a preference for jellybeans sits directly below a tweet announcing the death of a friend. The Internet throws things up when you least expect or want it. “For anyone suffering any sort of bereavement, the world is full of landmines and this is not necessarily the world’s fault”. And so, alongside the digital and legal movement in favour of the right to be forgotten, we are also navigating the emotional landscape of our own right to forget. He ponders on how the word mute has mutated into an action – “nowhere in its history has the word ‘mute’ been related to obscuring or rendering invisible” as we mute our over-zealously sharing friends and ads.
While most of his writing is easy on the mind, parts can feel like one is watching the free-association of a stranger’s mind drawing connections between things of little consequence to the reader. Some essays felt more on point than others. For those in a contemplative mood, his experiences soothingly mirror our own; for those seeking a manual on emerging emotionally unscathed from the digital realm, this is not it.